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When Authentic is Fake

No word is more frequently used to describe the design aesthetic for new Main Street-inspired retail and lifestyle centers than “authentic.” When applied to the design of these retail environments, “authentic” brings to mind visions of a simpler life. One can almost expect to see “the Beav” riding by on a fat-tired, fendered bicycle on his way to the corner shop to get a soda. As we well know, however, this is not the way people normally live their lives today. Looking at my own life, I have two small boys and our “authentic” lives are a bit more chaotic.

The places from which designers often draw inspiration for “authentic” Main Street retail centers are small-town shopping districts that have evolved over decades. Many of the physical design aspects of these original areas were created as a direct result of the community's social, economic and commercial needs. Main Street stores were developed by individual shopkeepers, who had specific needs and a great understanding of themselves and their customers. The end product was a place not only rich in imagery and physical texture (varied window sizes, doors, details, materials, etc.) but also in social fabric. It was a place of varied social opportunities.

Today, designers are often challenged with “authentically” recreating these physical and social situations from years gone by and reconciling them with the way we currently live and shop. But producing these older environments without acknowledging current social conditions comes with peril.

For example, the small piazzas of Italy have a certain determined chaos to them, giving one the sense of intrigue and mystery lying just around the corner. These same piazzas reconstructed to roughly the same scale in destinations such as Las Vegas or Orlando lack this mystery. Why? The poetry of place is not determined by the reproduction of a theme. It is determined by the authentic representation of a culture's reality and values as they exist today. Piazzas are not representative of Orlando's culture. Or Las Vegas's. Determine what the culture is locally, and design around that.

In addition, designers are also being challenged to recreate authentic uses for these Main Street retail and lifestyle centers. One exciting aspect of new Main Street developments is vertically mixing alternative uses, usually apartment units or offices over street-level retail. This idea of a live/work environment is certainly not new. Years ago it was not uncommon for a shopkeeper to live above his or her store in a quaint, two-bedroom unit.

What is new is the challenge of integrating a 200-unit apartment footprint above a 350-foot-long retail block, in a manner that feels good to pedestrians and is authentic to the current development model — not a repetitive series of buildings mushed together over a short period time.

The design of today's Main Street-inspired retail development and lifestyle centers can be likened to the early stages of development of the regional mall. In the beginning, shoppers would come to the mall no matter what it looked like. The ability to shop indoors during inclement weather coupled with the ability to have access to numerous goods in one location, all of which was reached easily by car, provided a new and meaningful experience.

But, as consumers became more affluent and widely traveled, they also became more sophisticated in their expectations of a shopping environment. This newfound attitude pushed the evolution of the beautiful centers of today — a far cry from original malls with diagonal wood slats on the ceiling and brown tile on the floor.

You can't fake values. If we are not careful, this same scenario can soon happen with many new outdoor retail centers. Main Street retail and lifestyle centers, designed in the manner reflective of the values of its society and are flexible in design, will continue to thrive. Those that aren't leave themselves open to easy competition as shoppers and other users become more sophisticated in their expectations.

So what can designers do? It is critical to the future success of new Main Street-inspired developments and lifestyle centers that they be built around attributes the community considers valuable among the other Vitruvian values of firmness, commodity and delight.

If a sense of history is important to a locale, for example, then the importance and relevance of that history should be understood, and references to that history should be incorporated through design (building materials, size and shape of openings, open space in front of buildings, etc.) without imitation.

Whether a culture identifies with progressive thinking or avant-garde thinking, diversity or homogeneity, stability or transience, these aspects should be expressed to create a community's original sense of place. When designers succeed, there is nothing like the poetic experience of an “authentic place.”

Who Angelo Carusi
A principal at Cooper Carry Inc. focusing solely on retail design since 1989. He specializes in assisting clients in the evaluation, relocation, renovation and strategic allocation of retail uses for new and existing centers

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